Los Frailes, Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park, Baja California Sur
We left the bustling streets of Todos Santos when the moon was half full and we were, for the time being, full of the Pacific side of things. We were ready to be back on the Sea of Cortez side of the peninsula, where the water is calmer and we can snorkel and kayak.
It’s forty-five miles fromTodos Santos, on the Pacific side, to Cabo San Lucas, at the southernmost tip of the peninsula, and another thirty-three miles to San José del Cabo, just barely on the eastern (Sea of Cortez) side. Those thirty-three miles and the two Cabo cities seemed to blend together, resort after resort along the coastline. We saw a steady stream of construction too. After hitting an ATM we found a Coppel where we loaded up on groceries and water. Michael laughed at me for taking a picture of the parking lot, but I liked the spaces reserved for pregnant women, and I thought my sister might too =) We also picked up another mat at Home Depot that we hoped would help keep the sand from cascading into the van by the bucketful. So far we’ve been happy with it.
Minutes out of San José del Cabo, the pavement ends and we started the drive on El Camino Rural Costero (Rural Coastal Road), the sandy road that heads up the East Cape. In no time, we were out of sight of hotels and on a fairly secluded bumpy road. It was an awesomely abrupt transition. We immediately made a wrong turn and ended up at a private entrance with four guards: two men and two cats. One of the guards was wearing a Tortuga Sanctuary baseball cap so I wonder if that’s what was up the road? As soon as he saw Sophie sitting on the back of the driver’s seat he got so excited I didn’t have the heart to interrupt him and ask him about his hat. With a lot of gesture and animation, he made sure we saw his two cats that were stationed there with him. They were both good-looking cats. I think he tried to tell us one of them does tricks but I didn’t see the trick. I still wonder if Mexican cats will come when they hear “kitty kitty kitty…”? It hasn’t worked yet. Gatito, gatito, gatito…
The drive along the East Cape is spectacular. We camped within 15 miles of Cabo, where the narrow and sandy road offered a turnout just a few hundred feet above the beach. The shoreline is graced with granite boulders and white sand beaches, lending it a dynamic and bold edge while casting the softest of colors across the enormous blue skyline. We watched a couple of fishing boats head towards Cabo. A small group motored past us on 4 wheelers in what looked like a tour group. Lots of trucks bounced by too. I think a lot of the traffic was from local contractors working on the growing mansions down the road.
Sophie loved it at this camp. After spending a week mostly hiding in the van, she had found her nirvana: hiding places and hills to climb!!! We took turns following her up and over boulders, across the road and straight up the hill. After we get a good distance from the van we pick her up and point her back downhill. Sometimes she gets the hint and will walk herself back to the van, other times we have to carry her. We call them resets. Occasionally we have to reset her back to home base. Then we do it again. As it gets darker Sophie gets a lot braver, wanting to go further and not caring if we are watching her or not. We tie her on a string if we are both busy, cooking and doing chores, and she’ll sit at the tightest reach of it, content enough to watch the sunset with us. Sometimes she has to chase a moth or something and she’ll do a backflip because of her harness, trying to leap onto a boulder that she can’t quite reach. She never really complains though. She has accepted her fate as a van cat and adapted extremely well. Sometimes we ask her if she ever imagined she’d live in a van on a beach in Mexico with us and we always get the same answer, “Where else would we be right now?”
The next morning we made the twenty-mile drive north along the coast to Los Frailes, almost directly east of Todos Santos. Propiedad Privada signs line the coastal road and we passed mansion upon mansion on the way, many of them empty and for sale. Although most of the shoreline is privately owned, plenty of public access to long stretches of empty, pristine beachfront can still be found and they feel secluded. It amazes me. It all amazes me. At one tiny dot on the map, Shipwreck, we noticed a gigantic movie screen on the beach. It was the only thing in any direction, except for a small sign indicating they project movies on Wednesday nights. I’m not sure why we kept driving, it would’ve been a suitable place to stay a few days, but it felt like Los Frailes was a destination that we wanted to reach. Driving the dirt roads always shakes up our nerves as much as the van and we both feel a little more comfortable knowing we’ve made it to wherever it is we’re going…. somewhere with people where we can get help if we need it, or at the very least, more beer.
As it was, we did blow a transmission coolant line within sight of the beach camping at Los Frailes. In a way, we broke down in our campsite. As soon as we pulled in and shut the motor off, Michael hopped out and rolled under the van to see where the burning transmission fuel was leaking. It was spurting out of a line that had giggled loose on the washboard road. We had six quarts of transmission fluid delivered to us the next day by a couple from Canada that was heading into town, so I guess we’re not broken down anymore? We haven’t moved in almost a week.
Uncharacteristically of the area (so we hear), we’ve actually been hunkering down out of the rain or wind most of the time we’ve been here. We’re waiting for better weather to kayak out beyond the point and snorkel. We’ve snorkeled a little bit though and it’s impressive already. I don’t know the names of the fish, but we’ve seen more than a dozen species in just a few minutes under water, diving through schools of tropical fish. Michael looks like a merman in his shorty blue shorts. The water is comfortable, warm, soft, buoyant and salty. It’s a decadent life. Besides Sophie loves it here. She has bushes to hunt in and for some reason she’s decided this is a safe place. She never roams far from the van and she’s pretty much on her own. We watch her, but we don’t even have to, she prefers to nestle into the sand next to one of the van tires and keep watch over the camp. I love her so much!
Los Frailes is a tiny-fishing-village-turned-vacation-and-retirement-community, where a large, dry, arroyo empties into to Bahia Frailes, the most protected bay along this stretch of coast, and within the southernmost boundary of Cabo Pulmo Marine Park. There are no stores or services here, just a few large houses overlooking the bay, dozens of RV’s parked all over the sandy river bed, and a small cluster of palapas and tents that make up a Mexican fishing camp. There are probably fifteen or so small, matching, white and blue boats that get pushed in the water at sunrise by a big blue suburban, called La Bestia, and a few other trucks. At dusk the boats come crashing up on shore and get lined up neatly next each other, a bonfire gets started and the party starts.
The RV-ers are spread out and taking up ten times as much room as the tightly arranged local fishing camp. Many of the residents of Los Frailes are older expats from Canada and elsewhere that return every year for one to six months. They LIVE HERE, half the year, FOR FREE. Some of them have even built up a sort of golf course up the arroyo. We’re the youngest ones here. Amenities are sparse. Two latrines on a hill, a couple of water trucks swing through every other day or so, a garbage site on the road, and a warm freshwater well. It’s primitive, free and one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen.
Manta rays jump out of the water making a splash loud enough we can hear from our van. Whales swim and play in the distance. I paddled right next to a large sea turtle. The snorkeling is some of the best in Baja. I could sit and watch the pelicans and seagulls all day. Everything here happens slowly. The birds circle over the boats, patient and unrelenting in their scavenge hunt for discarded fish.
On a particularly windy day, we hiked up Los Frailes Mountain and could see up the coastline to Cabo Pulmo, about three miles away. A couple of days later, on the full moon, we rode our bikes into Cabo Pulmo for dinner and beers. We passed some horses heading home on the road, a few cows and couple trucks. The clouds in the sky were surreal. Some people come here for the snorkeling, fishing, or birding; I’d consider returning just for the cloud watching at sunset on a full moon. I highly recommend planning your shorter vacations around the full moon, if you don’t already. Cabo Pulmo is too precious to describe in words. A few rental cabanas, dive shops, a couple of restaurants with thatched palm roofs and plastic patio furniture, recycling centers, a playground and that’s about it. Cabo Palmo is in the center of Cabo Pulmo Marine Park and situated next to one of the only three coral reefs in North America. The eight fingered coral reef in Cabo Palmo is the only reef in the Sea of Cortez and home to an abundance and variety of marine life that rivals anything you’ll find in the Caribbean. Snorkelers can hop right in from shore. “The aquarium of the world”, Jacques Cousteau said of the Sea of Cortez. We are in a sea world heaven, with the Sierra de la Laguna Mountains right behind us. Santiago next??